A former logistics officer for Irish NGO GOAL was detained last year in Ukraine and is now facing US extradition on charges of corruption and witness tampering related to US-funded aid projects in Syria, The New Humanitarian has learned from court documents.
The criminal charges are the first to emerge from more than three years of investigations by USAID, the US foreign aid department, into corruption involving hundreds of millions of dollars of relief supplies delivered to Syria through Turkey.
Staff from GOAL, Save the Children, and a New York-based aid organisation that has not been publicly identified - referred to in court documents as NGO-2 - are alleged to have favoured certain vendors to win procurement contracts involving US taxpayer funds.
Court filings charge that Ernest Halilov, the former GOAL logistics officer, bribed other NGO staff with cash and other items including a car, plane tickets, and electronics. In one instance, he allegedly laid on an overnight shopping spree at the Hilton hotel in Mersin, Turkey, complete with 5-star hotel stay, $1,500 spending money, and Mercedes car service.
An official with the US Department of Justice confirmed that Halilov was pending extradition from Ukraine.
The indictment, filed at the District Court of the District of Columbia in June but kept under seal until Halilov's arrest last year, summarises instances of alleged corrupt behaviour from 2011 to 2016. It includes two charges of theft and bribery and two of tampering with a witness by asking them to delete potential evidence and lie to the USAID investigation team.
Halilov is referred to by name in the court documents, which otherwise anonymise the names of organisations and other individuals. Attempts to contact Halilov for comment before publication were unsuccessful.
Representatives of Save the Children confirmed to TNH via email that it is the organisation referred to as NGO-3. The documents refer to Halilov's employer as NGO-1. TNH has previously confirmed that Halilov was employed by GOAL during the period referred to in the documents. GOAL declined requests for comment on its identity as NGO-1, as well as all other queries, with a spokesperson saying they don't comment on "matters before the courts".
Since the US investigation began in 2015, several senior managers have left GOAL, including the CEO. No wrongdoing was alleged.
Read more: Can Ireland's biggest humanitarian agency survive a corruption scandal?
Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for Save the Children (UK), said its investigations into the affair in 2016 led to four staff being suspended who later "left the organisation".
"Save the Children is not a party to these legal proceedings," Ryan said. "We welcome the US government's efforts to prosecute corrupt officials who target humanitarian organisations."
Between 2016 and 2018, investigators with USAID's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) had barred 20 companies and individuals, including Halilov, from doing business with the US government.
USAID confirmed these measures were part of the same investigation into contracts to supply Syrian relief programmes with food and other goods bought in Turkey. The investigation looked into $239 million of grants and found extensive "bid rigging, collusion, bribery, and kickbacks", according to the OIG.
The case against Halilov
In the court documents, the US Department of Justice alleges that several NGO procurement staff shared inside information and steered USAID-funded tenders for goods - such as flour or school supplies - towards preferred vendors picked by Halilov, who was described on a posting now removed from the NGO's website as GOAL's "Global Logistician".
The court documents suggest that the investigation may be broader than previously disclosed, as the allegations also refer to contracts issued in South Sudan and a trail of corrupt deals that stretch back to 2011 - before the Syrian relief operations began.
Halilov, a citizen of Turkmenistan, was employed for 16 years by GOAL up to April 2016, according to a CV posted online.
The Washington DC court was notified on 31 October that Halilov was under arrest and being held in Ukraine "pending extradition proceedings". The Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and prosecutor's office did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.
The US and Ukraine have no extradition treaty, but extraditions are still possible on a case-by-case basis.
The charges in the indictment refer to staff who worked with three agencies, including Save the Children, the unidentified New York-based NGO referred to as NGO-2, and GOAL.
The charges also describe two witnesses, both Kenyan women, referred to only as "CC-1" and CC-2". CC-1 worked in procurement in GOAL's Turkish office in 2015-2016. CC-2 worked for Save the Children and "NGO-2", as well as GOAL, over a period of years. The court documents allege Halilov asked "CC-2" to delete emails and lie to US investigators.
In an interview with TNH in December 2018, USAID's investigator said its probe into GOAL as an organisation was complete, but that the wider investigation, and others like it, continued.